Helping students to talk about the 2019-2020 bushfires

January 23, 2020

The bushfires that have ravaged communities around Australia from late 2019 continue to devastate Australians and raise many issues for them and the international community.  Although Australia is prone to bushfire, the massive fuel loads, the vastness of the fire zones – some with their own weather systems – the voraciousness of the fires that hit so many communities that are in many cases unstoppable – and the links to climate change, have galvanised much discussion about the need for a rethink and a review of bushfire management.

The extensive media coverage reporting loss of human life, extensive property, animal and habitat loss, use of Australian Defence Force personnel with naval ships and helicopters to evacuate thousands of residents and tourists from danger, and hazardous smoky air extending to a number of capital cities and beyond meant most, if not all, of your students will have been exposed to the fires in some way.

Many thousands of families have been deeply affected by these tragic events. The closer the event is to a person, the more likely it will have a significant impact. Those who have experienced any form of recent tragic loss are also more vulnerable. Where there are students and adults directly or deeply affected, schools may wish to organise psychological support. With many of the traumatic events occurring during the school holiday period, to reduce the likelihood of ongoing difficulties and/or the onset of further trauma, support is particularly important during the first two weeks when students return to school.

If students haven’t seen images on TV, the internet or in newspapers, they may have overheard adults and children talking about the events. Many children will have been exposed through social media. We know from research on the aftermath of the tragic events associated with 9/11 that repeated viewing of trauma in the media can be disturbing for children and adults. Children are especially vulnerable to experiencing feelings of loss of safety, fear or apprehension following exposure to such events.

Schools can provide a sense of familiarity, calm and routine for students in the aftermath of the bushfires. Schools are supportive communities where students can feel safe. However, teachers will need to manage their own shock, grief, anxiety and anger before talking to students about the fires. While many teachers will have their own stories to tell, they need to be mindful about what is shared with children. Avoid telling students your own difficult experiences, issues and stresses to help protect them from further trauma. Teachers will need to be psychologically available to help meet the needs of students.

Schools can plan for the return to school and support teachers in their roles in many ways, for example, a short morning or mid-morning debrief at school, led by a senior staff member, psychologist or school counsellor, can provide support to help teachers manage their thoughts and emotions as they respond to students or guide classroom discussions.

Look after yourself.  Take time out to do something for yourself, be with friends, go for a short walk, practice calm breathing or do something simple you normally enjoy. If you feel affected by the events, make time to talk with someone about it. If you need additional support, ask for it. Accept support if it is offered, even if you think it isn’t needed. For further information and advice to support friends, family and yourself to deal with the distress, see the article, How to help those affected by the fires.

When school resumes, and after any appropriate tributes, your school might like to organise a short recreational activity [1] such as a teacher versus teacher basketball match or perform several songs at school assembly to show students that prosocial activity, having fun, can contribute to a sense of recovery.

As a teacher, you may be wondering how you will talk with your students about the bushfires. What do they know already? What will they be saying when they return to school? What can I tell them? How can I say the right thing?

Seven key things teachers can do to support students who feel scared or worried as a result of the bushfires:

  • Normalise. Let students know that feeling scared, sad or angry after seeing or hearing about such events is normal and that the fear or strong feelings will subside.
  • Listen and be guided by what each child wants to say, draw, write, make or create. Students should not be forced to share their experiences or feelings about the bushfires. Some may just want to listen. Allowing children to choose their preferred mode of expression, followed by a discussion, short chat or words of support may assist in bringing some closure [2] or sense of recovery to their experience.
  • Provide perspective and a sense of hope. Answer questions and correct inaccurate information honestly, simply and age-appropriately. If the school is affected by smoke haze, you could locate the school and fires on a map and discuss how winds are moving smoke across the country. Avoid political stereotyping or blaming. Often, hope of a better future can be reassuring.
  • Provide a sense of safety and control. Remind students they are safe; that extreme bushfire events are leading to improved household, community, regional, State, Territory and national planning and responses, timely media alerts, safe evacuation points and safe methods of evacuation. Talk about the people in our communities whose job it is to help keep us safe. Some older students may wish to further discuss previous catastrophic bushfire events and explore the links to climate change and other contributing factors. Help them feel safe at school by maintaining routines and discussing what, and who keeps them safe at home, at school and in the broader community.
  • Promote coping behaviours. Have students identify things they can do to help them feel better such as talk to a parent, write in a journal, play a game, go for a run or spend time with friends. Suggest they do one of these things when they have strong or worrying feelings or fears.
  • Focus on helping. Fred Rogers’ quote can be a useful way to begin discussions.

‘When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.’

  • As a class. brainstorm ways to help those directly affected by the bushfires, such as writing letters of support to a class in a school community affected by fire or raising money to donate to the Australian Red Cross bushfire appeal. Alternatively, discuss ways they can be helpful in their own community by raising awareness about an issue, or fundraising for a local support agency, the Salvation Army, State-based fire agencies and wildlife agencies, such as the WWF Australian Wildlife and Nature Recovery Fund.

Most students who experience, witness or hear about a traumatic event will begin to recover after several days, however for some it might take longer.

It is important that you and/or a senior staff member discuss any concerns about a student with their parents. If the student has been displaying concerning behaviours for more than one month following the traumatic event, it is recommended that you refer them, via their parents, to a psychologist or the family doctor.

For more comprehensive information, a list of concerning behaviours, and classroom strategies to support a child affected by the recent Australian bushfires, Psych4Schools members can access the ebooklets, Working with children who fear life-threatening events (war, terrorism, disasters, pandemics) and Working with children who have experienced trauma in the past two weeks.

Not a member? Click here to join today.

Murray Evely, Psych4Schools Psychologist



[1] The Australian Psychological Society, (2016) Bushfires Recovery, Useful skills for disaster recovery, Taking time for pleasurable activities.

[2] Roberts, M., and Trethowan, V., Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, (n.d.) Helping Children after a Bushfire – Teacher Booklet.